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Md. trial courts to fully resume Oct. 5; other proceedings phased in earlier

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. (File photo)

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. (File photo)

Maryland’s trial courts will return to “full operations” including jury trials on Oct. 5 following a summer of gradual resumptions of court proceedings, including evictions, foreclosures and bench trials, the state’s top judge stated Friday evening.

“The details in the reopening plan were carefully and deliberately crafted by workgroups composed of (Maryland) Judiciary leadership, with the health and well-being of court visitors and employees as the driving force, in our work to increase access to the courts,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said in a statement announcing the phased-in approach she ordered.

“We acknowledge the courts will not be able to return to full operations,” Barbera added. “This phased return will guide the courts, as we continue to monitor health conditions in each of the 24 jurisdictions.”

The first phase will begin 5 p.m June 5 and slightly expand the list of court proceedings that Barbera deemed in March as emergency actions that must continue to be staffed and conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including domestic violence petitions, detention hearings, bail reviews, arraignments, juvenile hearings and protective orders. The additional procedures include emergency evaluation proceedings, quarantine and isolation petitions, emergency habeas corpus proceedings and extradition cases, Barbera stated in her updated emergency order.

July 20 will involve a more substantial expansion, with the re-opening to the public of district and circuit court clerk’s offices and the resumption of certain nonjury trials in circuit and district court, including allegations of violence or drunk driving. Circuit courts will also resume hearing motions requiring witness testimony, deferred sentencing hearings, attorney disciplinary proceedings, settlement hearings, court-ordered mediations in family law cases, adoptions and contested hearings for termination of parental rights, under Barbera’s order.

Everyone seeking access to a courthouse or court office will have to answer health-screening questions, be subject to temperature checks, wear a face covering and practice social distancing. Individuals denied access will be provided information on conducting the proceedings remotely or having them rescheduled, the order stated.

“We have worked tirelessly to make sure the safeguards necessary to protect, as much as reasonably possible, the health of the public, Judiciary personnel, and justice partners were in place before we open to the public,” District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said in a statement. “Differences in docket sizes, courtroom and courthouse layouts, and the number of judicial employees will affect the phases for every jurisdiction and court.”

Eviction and foreclosure proceedings, stayed under a prior COVID-19-related emergency order from Barbera, can resume July 25.

Aug. 31 will mark a full resumption of nonjury criminal and civil trials in circuit and district court followed on Oct. 5, when “all courts will resume full operations, including jury trials in criminal and civil case types in the circuit court,” Barbera’s order stated.

But even with the reopening of the courts, Barbera encouraged judges to conduct proceedings remotely to the extent they can.

“Remote proceedings have been useful and effective in facilitating the courts’ ability to carry out core functions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura S. Ripken, chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, in a statement Friday. “The courts will continue to use technology for remote proceedings so that we can expand the types of matters that can be heard before the court.”

Barbera’s administrative orders are available on the Judiciary’s website. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing 3 p.m. Thursday on the phased-in resumption of court proceedings.

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